In the end, there was still enough room on his left forearm.
Sandro Tonali has tattoos of his dog Margot, his grandmother’s date of birth and his old shirt number from when he started his professional career at Brescia. A year ago he decided to get another one, of the Campioni d’Italia trophy. Tonali had recently lifted the real thing under fluttering ticker tape. It was AC Milan’s first league title since 2010-11 – a time when local boy Tonali first started going to the San Siro as a fan.
His father, Giandomenico, is “one of the Curva” – an ultra from nearby Lodi who used to stand in Sud at home games and go on the road to support the team. That love for Milan was passed down to his son. However, the first replica jersey Tonali owned was from the Premier League. Not a Newcastle United, which he is likely to sign next season after more progress in talks on Wednesday, but a Chelsea with Frank Lampard’s name and number on the back – a detail Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali could have used when they expressed their own interest in the player – but as a boy it was “Sempre Milan” in his heart. Milan. Always.
He was just seven when they beat Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2007 and attended his first game at the San Siro a month or so before his 10th birthday. It was Milan vs Chievo. Thiago Silva was at the back. Andrea Pirlo, David Beckham and Ronaldinho took it in turns on set pieces. Clarence Seedorf won the match in stoppage time with a laser-like finish into the top corner. “It was a terrible game,” Tonali recalled. But for that goal it was worth it.
“I never imagined I would get to play there in that jersey,” Tonali said.
As a boy, he wore their colors at Lombardia Uno, a football school on the outskirts of the city with ties to Milan. Paolo Maldini’s sons, Daniel and Christian, were also on their books and scouts from Milan used to turn up and hold trials. Tonali was a striker in his early days, becoming a midfielder only a little later. Milan didn’t know what to make of him. Twice they decided not to offer him an academy place. “A lot of people have made the same mistake with other players,” Davide Gatti, head of Lombardia Uno, told Athletics. “It’s not easy to judge a player and know exactly how they will develop at that age.”
Nearby Piacenza, the hometown of the Inzaghi brothers, played at Tonali. When they went bankrupt in 2012, one of his coaches Gianluca Balestri sent him up to another of the region’s clubs, Brescia.
It didn’t take long for Tonali to generate a disproportionate amount of hype.
He made his debut as a 17-year-old against Avellino in Serie B. His position in front of the defence, long brown hair and the turtleneck shirt led to a lot of projection, a lot of cognitive bias, a lot of mischaracterization. YouTube supercuts, social media threads and Football Manager forums billed Tonali as the next Pirlo.
“It got a little taxing,” Tonali admitted. The media wanted it to be true and it was easy enough to spin. Tonali had more time on the ball in Serie B and could play the odd Hollywood pass. The midfield diamond played by Brescia contributed to this mythology of the regista role – the film director whose vision is everything. It confirmed what people wanted to see.
A free kick he scored against Genoa in October 2019 after promotion to the top flight did the rest. People overlooked the fact that his intention was obviously to cross to the far post. “The new Pirlo?” Serie A’s official highlight in the goal asked.
Whether it was to divert attention or not, Tonali began to claim that the player he modeled his game after was in fact Gennaro Gattuso. When Milan bought him from Brescia, initially on loan, in September 2020, the number he requested was Gattuso’s No.8.
Tonali called the former midfielder to ask permission and got some advice in return. He was told to be “antico”. The literal translation is old, but what Gattuso meant was that Tonali should live by old family values and show the shirt and the club the respect it deserves. He had to uphold traditions and standards not only at San Siro but also around their Milanello training ground.
Gattuso remembers being reprimanded for not cleaning up after himself after a shave. Milan’s former owner Silvio Berlusconi used to offer him raises if he cut his hair and got rid of his beard for Milan’s annual team photo. Tonali has followed that advice in her own way. Due to the honor of playing for Milan and his tifo (support), he has the stereotype of the Golden Boy who can do no wrong.
But little went right for Tonali in the first season in Milan. Playing at the San Siro is different from Brescia’s Mario Rigamonti with a capacity of 16,000. Historically, this has meant competing for the Scudetto and the Champions League. The jersey feels heavier, bigger. Carrying it, filling it, is a test that has been rendered redundant by more talented players than Tonali, and he needed a re-sit. At the end of his loan, Milan let their option to sign him on a permanent basis expire. They then renegotiated a lower fee with Brescia and Tonali, to his credit, humbly accepted a pay cut to secure a second chance.
Did he ever doubt himself? “No,” he insisted. But that loan season was tough and at the end of it Tonali, who had made his senior debut for Italy in October 2019, was overlooked for the team that won the European Championship. “I think it was partly because I was a fan and my father and my family were Milanistas. My brothers and mates are Milanisti,” he said of that debut year. “I was in a situation where I didn’t want to be a disappointment to all of them.”
Tonali played for the time being. He was, he says, “a bit scared”. But Milan coach Stefano Pioli believed.
“More than a coach, Mister (Pioli) showed himself to be a good person,” Tonali said. “I think he spoke to me more than anyone else that year. He knew what I was going through and he does the same with other players we have signed (like Charles De Ketelaere, last summer’s arrival from the Club Bruges in Belgium), which is now going through the same phase I went through then.
“I was lucky that my second year was behind closed doors (due to crowd restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic). It might seem like other than San Siro is a big deal. Maybe that helped me settle in. I wanted to smash it my sophomore year and as soon as the season started … you just feel it right away. You just know when things start going well for you.”
Tonali never looked back.
He established himself in the double pivot alongside Franck Kessie and scored the stoppage-time winner against Lazio last April, leading everyone to believe that this would be Milan’s year in Serie A. Tonali stood out for his athleticism for the aesthetics. He is the player who covers the most distances for Milan, and while he lacks the pace of colleagues Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao, he works more at high speed than anyone in their team apart from cocker spaniel winger Alexis Saelemaekers.
While Maldini claimed to see a hybrid between Pirlo and Gattuso, and Pirlo himself noted Tonali’s ability to look up and play forward, he is not a playmaker – unless you follow Jurgen Klopp’s line that the gegenpressen is football’s best playmaker.
If we consult StatsBomb’s line-breaking passes, Tonali ranks 44th out of 70 midfielders in Serie A and is near the bottom of the list when it comes to the completion rate (48 percent) of such passes.
None of which is to diminish Tonali. He made more assists (seven) than any other Milan player other than Leao in the league last season. But if you look at how they came about, it’s a mixture of energetic carries, recoveries and passes lifted into Leao’s path for him to dribble, as well as some sweet set pieces. Had he been born in the capital and come through Roma’s system, the parallels would be less with Pirlo and more with Daniele De Rossi, although that also feels a bit sacrilegious.
Tonali looked set to become a Milan wizard. He is one of the club’s captains, and for Italians who grow up supporting a member of Italy’s big three, doing so at one of them is the pinnacle. Everything else represents a fall.
Only last year he said: “I know what I went through to get here and I would never make the mistake of leaving. I dream of becoming a ‘bandiera’ in Milan” — the flag bearer, like Maldini, Franco Baresi and Gianni Rivera were earlier. But romance is largely dead in football and the days of the bandiera are over. Other Milanisti have been lured by transformative wage offers from Europe’s super-rich and state-owned wealth clubs.
Gianluigi Donnarumma was also to be a new one-club man – Milan’s captain for a new generation. But his childhood support for the club didn’t count for much when the Qataris behind Paris Saint-Germain offered to double his money.
Mike Maignan has shown in the two years since that there was more to life than Donnarumma and Milan will move on from Tonali if the Saudis behind Newcastle make an offer that the player and his club consider to be in their mutual interest. After submitting a written offer of €50m (£43m; $54.9m) yesterday, Newcastle’s determination to seal a deal was evident today (Wednesday) as a delegation held face-to-face talks in Milan and prepared the framework for a transfer worth. in the region of €70 million – which would be a record for an Italian midfielder.
Any anger a sale could provoke in Milan’s fan base and the punditocracy should be directed at City Hall and the lack of progress on a new stadium, rather than the club’s ownership.
If you build it, they will come: Serie A’s stadium problem
If Milan were allowed to build one, the increase in revenue would help keep players like Tonali. Instead, the lack of year-on-year matchday income compared to their peers around the continent forces the club to entertain offers like this one from Newcastle so they can generate more transfer budget that way.
Let it be the parable of Tonali and a move to the Premier League that edges ever closer.
(Top photo: Nicolo Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)